Sexual Behavior in Birds

By Rick Axelson, DVM

There are many different behaviors witnessed by owners of birds that are associated with sexual maturity and hormone fluctuations. At certain times of the year, birds are under the powerful influence of sex hormones and will behave instinctively in distinct ways that you may not have witnessed before. The behaviors will vary with species and individuals. They are not necessarily seen with every bird. Sexual behavior may be induced by many factors such as seasonal changes in daylight hours, environmental influences, diet, and interactions with owners or favorite toys and objects. Wild birds (particularly parrots) normally have a very intense relationship with a mate. Humans may frustrate or confuse a bonded bird with what may be our inappropriate responses to their sexual behaviors.

What might I see?

One of the most commonly seen behaviors is regurgitation. This represents an offering of food that a bird would give to a "mate" during courtship. Budgies, cockatiels and lovebirds do it the most often. These birds may actually "pair bond" to a favorite toy, mirror or other shiny reflective surface. The general consensus is that you should remove the toy or mirror to reduce the attachment the bird has to the object. Be careful-you don't want to miss the truly sick bird who is vomiting or regurgitating! If you are at all unsure, have it checked by a veterinarian familiar with birds.

Masturbation occurs both in small birds (budgies and cockatiels) and larger birds. They may be seen rubbing their cloaca or vent (underneath the tail) on a favorite toy, a shoe, or on the hands, arms or shoulders of a person.  Although this behavior is relatively harmless, it should be ignored and not encouraged (For further information, see our  Masturbation handout).

"Some birds have more extreme behavior changes include territorial aggression, screaming and feather picking or chewing."

Some birds have more extreme behavior changes include territorial aggression, screaming and feather picking or chewing. When sexually stimulated, the bird may strut around, display feathers (wings and tail fanning), become aggressive, and/or become more vocal. Some will bite and chase people around the house. They may display and become very territorial. Others will actually become more affectionate and loving.

Some birds seek nesting places such as dishes, cupboards, closets, drawers, or other hide-away places. You may observe paper or wood chewing or shredding, gathering behaviors and changes in vocalization especially mornings and evenings.

What should I do?

Correcting these behaviors is usually unnecessary, as most birds will be "normal" in 6-8 weeks. Clearly, there will be exceptions. Some birds exhibit these behavioral changes persistently or permanently, instead of with a normal seasonal pattern. We may actually inadvertently reward a behavior by paying attention to it.

"The behaviors should be discouraged or ignored."

We should not encourage sexual behaviors as the "problem" may escalate. The behaviors should be discouraged or ignored. Physical hugging and scratching around the head is fine, but scratching the back, rump or hind end may sexually stimulate your bird. Cranky birds should be left alone. Regurgitating birds can be removed to another location to help diminish the behavior. Masturbation should be ignored and not encouraged. Nesting spots should be rendered inaccessible. Shortening the indoor daylight hours to a winter-like photoperiod will deter some birds.

Redirect your bird's attention towards toys and healthy interactive play with you, the owner.  If the behavior becomes problematic, discuss it with a veterinarian familiar with birds or a bird behaviorist.

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